The First Bible Translation (that we know about!)
While the effort to translate the Bible into every language on earth is relatively recent, Bible translation has been going on for nearly as long as biblical texts have existed!
We certainly don't have a complete record of every Bible translation throughout history. Even so, the earliest suggested translation is right in the Bible itself: in the Book of Nehemiah.
How Scripture Was Almost Lost
Nehemiah and Ezra were two Jewish leaders during a pivotal point in Israel's history - after both Israel and Judah had been conquered and disbanded as nations. The Hebrew people, scattered or captive to their enemies, had lived in exile for generations.
Many Hebrew people were taken to Babylon, capital city of the Chaldean empire, while others were left in the ruins of Jerusalem. Their temple had been razed to the ground and its holy artifacts carried off as spoils of war. We can read about these events in biblical texts written before, during, and after they happened: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel prophesy about the coming exile while the book of Daniel tells of those Jews living in the city of Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar and later King Darius.
After all of this, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of a small remnant of Jews returning to rebuild Jerusalem (as the aforementioned prophets also foretold). Ezra chiefly led the effort to rebuild the Temple of Yahweh, and Nehemiah spearheaded the effort to rebuild the walls of the city.
Of course, this is only one of many tragic moments in human history when one culture nearly erased another. Removing people from their homeland, destroying their cultural and religious icons and records, and most effectively, suppressing their native languages, are tried and true strategies to destroy an entire culture within a single generation.
But we know that the Hebrew Scriptures and religion survived. How?
The power of God. And Bible translation.
The First Bible Translation on Record
Tucked away in these narratives of a massive capital building campaign is one chapter describing the rediscovery and translation of the the Book of Jewish Law known as the Hebrew Torah which during the years of exile had been lost and nearly forgotten.
As recorded in Nehemiah 8:1-11, the people who had returned from exile gather in Jerusalem to hear the reading of a found copy of the Torah for the first time in their generation. Though the exact dates are unknown, enough time has passed that this audience likely now speaks Aramaic, the common language of the Chaldean Empire. Ezra himself reads the Torah to "men, women, and the children who were old enough to understand" (Neh 8:2). Notably, Ezra also has a group of Levite priests with him, whose job it was to "explain the Law" as it was read (8:7). They act as an on-the-spot translation team:
They gave an oral translation of God’s Law and explained it so that the people could understand it.
The rest of the chapter describes the dramatic reaction of the hearers as they respond to God's Word in their language.
Hearing and Understanding
This chapter from the Hebrew Scriptures tells us a lot about how God speaks to his people. First, the authors point out that "men, women, and children" were present. The Torah's words were for all ages and stages of life, not only the educated, wealthy, pious, or privileged. Centuries later, Jesus echoes this principle with the oft-quoted, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven."
Secondly, this account uses the word "understand" several times to emphasize that it was not enough to merely hear the words of Torah in their originally inspired language. Unlike other religions where the venerated texts are revered as hidden wisdom only accessible to holy teachers, this Word of God was meant to be understood. In fact, it was so important that these Babylonian Jews understood the text that it was not read in public without a translation team present!
The God of the Bible is absolutely holy and powerful, but he repeatedly humbles himself in order to reach people at their level, where they are, and in the language they will understand. The first recorded Bible translation in history is just one example of how he brings his Truth to people who needed to hear it. He does the same today as translation teams around the world work to bring the Bible to their own language communities for the first time.